Divide and rule

I don't usually write about politics on this site because I like to keep things constructive and jovial, but I had an epiphany last night that I thought was worth sharing.

Ever since the 2016 election here in the US, I've felt an increasing political divide amongst my peers and in society at large. I've also found that the mainstream political left in this country has veered in a direction which I cannot myself support, and that I've sought different perspectives across the political landscape. I won't mention what the specific policy positions are that have led me to this shift, since they're irrelevant to what I'm about to suggest.

This growing political rift has led to violent confrontations in multiple cities, including my own. It has led my partner and I into arguing about our political differences instead of uniting around our shared values. It has engulfed the country in an all-out culture war, wherein we disown and disavow those tribes who disagree with us.

Our nation's bitter disagreements are about moral issues over which people will almost certainly always disagree. Things like abortion rights, gay marriage, religious freedom, globalization, and immigration.

As well, they're often about our immutable characteristics: race, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.

But what if our squabbles are actually the ruling class's means of control and manipulation? What if, in all our fighting amongst each other, we're not speaking truth to power but actually giving it more fuel?

Divide and rule is a strategy of gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.

According to Wikipedia, the technique involves:

  • creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects to prevent alliances that could challenge the sovereign
  • aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate with the sovereign
  • fostering distrust and enmity between local rulers
  • encouraging meaningless expenditures that reduce the capability for political and military spending

Applied to US politics in 2019, we see:

  • news media promoting issues which seek divide the populace according to race, gender, and sexuality
  • major political parties embracing this strategy of division, since it serves the ruling class
  • growing tensions between racial groups and between the genders
  • diverting political spending and energy away from real challenges to power (i.e., limiting campaign contributions and lobbying, financial system reform, and universal social welfare systems) toward those that distract and divide (i.e., racial and gender inequality, immigration)

This isn't to say race and gender issues aren't important. They are. But they're also divisive and breed resentment. They incite the worst tribal qualities within us. And the irony is that the strategies currently employed will never unite us because they're designed specifically not to.

This strategy works from both sides. For instance, take gender. In popular media, women are told they're part of an oppressed group in America. Whether or not that's true is irrelevant to our discussion. What's relevant is that they believe it. In believing this, an agenda is set: rectify the gender gap. But men might not see things that way. They might say women have been granted, by power of the legislature, all the rights men have. They won the right to vote, the right to own property, and freedom of movement. Men now resent women for their suggestion they are oppressed. Women resent men because they feel oppressed. Neither realizes they're being had by the real oppressor: the thumb of a ruling class who has all the money.

You see these corrosive dichotomies everywhere in society. Feminists fighting the patriarchy versus men's rights activists. Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter. Leftism versus classical liberalism. Antifa versus the Proud Boys.

Resentment toward diversity quotas for putting aside the principles of meritocracy in the workplace in the interest of more racial equity. Anger at white men for the fact they hold most positions of power. Outrage at police brutality directed at young black men. Wanting to send all the immigrants back to where they came from because they're taking jobs. Resentment because you can't use the bathroom that suits your gender identity. Anger because there's a man in the woman's bathroom.

It is in the interest of those in power to keep us disagreeing with one another over issues that are inherently divisive so we don't focus on the burgeoning concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few people.

George Carlin made light of this fact years ago:


They keep the lower and middle classes fighting each other. Now to balance the scale I’d like to talk about the things that bring us together.

Things that point out our similarities instead of our differences. Because that is all you ever hear about in this country is our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society.

They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the low and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich can run off with all the f*cking money. Fairly simple thing, happens to work. You know anything different, that is what they are going to talk about, race, religion, ethnic, and national background, jobs, income, education, social status, sexuality, anything you can do – keep us fighting with each other so that they can keep going to the bank.

You know how describe the economic and social classes in this country? The upper class keep all of the money, pays none of the taxes. The middle-class pays all of the taxes, does all the work. The poor are there just to scare the sh*t out of the middle-class.

Now, this isn't an appeal to conspiracy theory. I don't think there's some meeting behind closed doors where the ruling elites gather and discuss which incindiary news stories they'll publish in order to sow unrest. No, it's more sinister than that. It's all about incentives.

News media organizations, now more than ever, are incentivized to publish the most anger-inducing, crazy-making, Facebook-post-generating stories they can. They rely upon our clicking their articles so we'll see their advertisers' ads. Which headline would be more likely to get you to click: one about campaign finance reform or one about a racial or gender-based issue?

Okay, so if this is all true and we're being manipulated into fighting with one another over issues with no solutions, what do we do?

First, we must banish the sources of these corrosive ideas from our lives for good. The Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox News, MSNBC, and the like are owned by some of the most powerful people in the world. They don't care about us. The sooner we stop listening to them and heeding to their agenda, the better. We should start to see news media for what it is: propaganda.

Second, we must become more mindful when we're engaging in rhetoric about issues that will perpetually divide us. This doesn't mean we shouldn't speak truth to power about real oppression, but that we should frame issues in a way that does not alienate those who might otherwise be proud allies in our struggle. Engage more in discussion about issues that resonate with everyone, like poverty, healthcare, infrastructure, and the concentration of political power in the hands of the few.

Third, we must strive to engage with people whose viewpoints are different from ours. But, rather than engaging politically about our differences, we must seek to forge alliances apolitically. We must recognize when we're engaging in an unwinnable fight over abstract concepts and return our attention back to the real world. We'll never agree on whether one race is more oppressed than another, but almost everyone can agree that no one should live in abject poverty.

Fourth, we must continually ascend to take a bird's-eye view of our own behaviors and retrain ourselves to recognize when we're playing into the divide and rule game. One way I think we can accomplish this is by recognizing when we're feeling resentment toward other people who are different from us. Whether we're men feeling resentment toward women, gay toward straight, or black toward white, it's a good indication we need to take a step back and realize we're being distracted from the dark ruling class strategy of divide and rule.

GTD & The Artist's Way

This week, my partner handed me a copy of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I was a big fan of the book in my early twenties, and in 2013 filled four Moleskines with daily morning pages per the book's recommendations.

As I've been revisiting the book this week, something stuck out to me. The author suggests that, in the process of writing morning pages each morning, we clean the cobwebs out of our mind's attic and are more able to think and create as a result. To me, this idea is strikingly similar to the recommendations of David Allen in his landmark productivity book Getting Things Done.

The central argument of Allen's book is that we're walking around with all these ideas and tasks rattling around in our brains, and that our brains aren't suited to this task. It's better to get all those thoughts and ideas and tasks out into a tool you trust you'll come back to regularly.

Gee, doesn't that sound a lot like morning pages, only with a business productivity bent? What if instead of my todos being a repository only of the things I have to do, they also included all the things I've ever wanted to do as well? Wouldn't it be fun to have a running list of all the things, whether realistic or outlandish, that you've ever thought of doing?

So I made a task list in OmniFocus called "Someday". I started small: Start a personal wiki. Then I got a bit more lavish: Take a trip to San Francisco. Eventually, I dreamed bigger: Renovate an old church to live in. Take a rustic cruise to Alaska. Get a doctorate in computer science.

Wow! I'm not sure I've dreamed that big since I was in college. It's so easy to get caught up in the duties and responsibilities of our day to day life and miss out on the romance of our imagination in the process. By giving myself permission to dream big and let go of my preconceptions of what is "realistic" or "responsible", I'm expanding my horizons and regaining my sense of imagination and creativity.

My hope is that eventually, I'll feel confident enough to promote these imaginings out of my "Someday" list and into my "Current" list. Time will tell.

My analog summer

Last week, I packed up my (virtual) things and waved goodbye to my last bit of consulting work before the summer begins. It's been a very long time since I had a good, long block of time with no real plans. I'm excited at the possibilities for personal enrichment and renewal.

In exploring what it will mean to take a true summer vacation, I've been thinking about how my digital devices often take center-stage in my mind's eye, and how I'd like to spend the summer exploring the tactile and the sensory, out here in the real world.

With that, I've been re-evaluating how I use technology and whether there are ways I can more often cross the digital-analog divide.

As well, I've been re-evaluating my relationship with giant tech companies and seeing whether there are some David alternatives to my current Goliath service providers.

My hope is to re-ignite the magic of computing and creativity I remember from the mid-2000's. There was a certain spirit about that time—one of decentralization, of do-it-yourself hacker activism—that I think has been lost in the age of big tech.

Gave away my Apple Watch

I bought an Apple watch a few months ago because it looked neat and I thought it'd be cool to track my activity. But I found that it only ever served to further distract me from the present moment. I'd receive text messages directly to my wrist, which would distract me from whatever I was doing and provoke me to dig into my bag for my phone to reply. I'd be in my workout class and get a text, only to ruminate over it for the duration of the class and know I soon had to respond.

When my parents came to Portland to visit me last week, I thought I'd send my Dad home with my Apple Watch, since he enjoys the Apple ecosystem more than I do. So far, I've really not noticed that it's gone.

Phone optional

Generally, I've carried my phone everywhere I go, and you probably do too. The expectation that we're always reachable has become part of our social fabric. When did we ever agree that it's not optional to carry a device that enables anyone to reach us at any time?

I've been experimenting with leaving my phone at home most of the time. It has required a bit of extra planning with my family and friends, but so far the results have been generally positive. I feel more present and attentive to the details of the outside world. I have to ask others for directions or the time because I don't have a device in my pocket with all the answers.

When I do bring my phone out into the world, I try to keep cellular data off and make sure it's always in my backpack, so I'm not constantly tempted to check it. I also keep my text message notifications off so I treat texting more like email and don't get distracted. Phone calls still get through, in case someone needs to reach me due to an emergency.

Pen & paper notetaking and todos

Does anyone remember the Hipster PDA? My friend Alex Weber introduced me to the concept during college way back in 2004. The idea is simple: Carry a stack of index cards held together with a binder clip and use that to take notes and log todos.

I've been a die-hard OmniFocus user for years, but it bothers me that I rely upon proprietary software for a basic life function. So far, I'm enjoying the simplicity of carrying note cards, and the versaility of always knowing I have some paper with me for notetaking.

No more paid streaming services

The pursuit of art is half its charm. I have fond memories of feeling victorious when I'd bought a CD I'd been looking for or trading music and movies with friends. Scarcity, while inconvenient, also encourages collaboration and community. By being forced to go out into the world to find new media, I interact with more creative people and get to support them directly.

As well, there's something magical about owning your own media. The fact I cancelled my Spotify account this month and now have nothing to show for it speaks volumes to how these services seek rents from users for limited access. When you buy DRM-free files directly from the artist, you both support the artist directly and get access to their work forever.

I'm excited to continue to question the way I use technology and hope my journey inspires you to do the same!

The thing about extremism

The thing about extremism is that if you're an extremist, you'd never call yourself that.

You'd think your views to be well reasoned, good intentioned, and moderate.

Extremism isn't something other people do. It's something we all do, in varying frequency.

To fight extremism, begin by looking in the mirror.

Mental illness and the urgency to be okay

I've struggled with depressed moods and anxious temperament for most of my adult life. I'm grateful that in spite of my struggle, I've been able to live a rich life full of great friends, a loving family, good food, a comfortable living space, a dynamic career, and some creative hobbies.

For the past few years, I've tried everything I could think of in order to find ways to cope. Talk therapy, yoga, fitness, self-help books, group therapy, and sobriety were my frequent go-tos. I could never find anything that worked.

One day recently though, I had an epiphany. I realized that the pursuit of getting better was, ironically, the cause of my depression. The idea that I am depressed means I'm not okay the way I am. It means I have to seek to be something different in order to be okay, even if I don't know what the target is. I need "treatment", which in our culture means some therapy and some medication. And if those don't work? Well, you didn't do it right. You need more treatment. Different treatment.

It's enough to drive a depressed person into cascading spirals of horrible depression. The idea that you're not good enough leads to depression. Depression leads to seeking treatment. Treatment leads to a diagnosis. A diagosis reinforces the idea you're not good enough.

I received a casual diagnosis from a therapist that I might have bipolar II disorder. He also told me it was a lifelong affliction. When this happened, I immediately had an identity crisis. Am I bipolar? What does that mean? Will I need to be on medication forever? What started out as me asking how to cope with my depression turned into a whole new identity of confusion, victimhood, and powerlessness.

I ruminated about the diagnosis for weeks. It consumed me, making me wonder whether I would always carry the burden of mental illness. It truly became a part of me. I adopted a victim mentality and became more of a burden to the people around me because I was even more convinced I wasn't okay the way I was than when I started.

But I started to think more critically about such a diagnosis and the ramifications mental health diagnosis has on its patients. Bipolar II is marked by hypomanic episodes involving high-risk activities, the likes of which I've never really experienced. It just didn't make any sense given my lifestyle, and the diagnosis came after only a couple months of therapy.

Then, suddenly, I had a breakthrough. I realized that my identifying with mental illness—my impression that there is such a thing as normalcy and that I don't have it—was the illness. I knew I needed to let go of the idea that I needed to be something else. To cultivate gratitude for what I am, not what I think I need to be. To let go of the idea that someone or something is going to fix me, because I don't need fixing.

I let go. And suddenly, the depression lifted. I felt good again. No therapy. No medication. No self-help. Just some meditation, good food, exercise, and letting go of the idea I need to be different from what I am.

I'm not "disordered". I don't have a "mental illness". I'm eccentric, exceptional, excellent, and unapologetically me. In letting go of what we think we need to be, we emerge recognizing the perfection we already are.

When it looks like everyone else is having more fun

My parents are currently in Miami and my mother sent me this photo of the view from their hotel:

Miami Hotel View

And my partner is currently in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and sent me this one from hers:

Puerto Vallarta Hotel

Meanwhile, I'm back in Portland. The Spring Fakeout has subsided, and it's a very familiar 50 degrees and overcast here. It's supposed to rain today. I have client work to attend to and will likely be inside most of the day.

If I size up my situation compared to theirs, it looks pretty glum. But that's not the whole story.

My mother, immediately before sending her photo, told me she hates Miami and doesn't really want to be there. And my partner had to suffer an erratic sleep schedule to make it on her 6:00am flight to Mexico.

It's easy to compare our circumstance to those of our friends and family and feel left out, isolated, and lesser-than. But the reality is that our suffering follows us wherever we go. It doesn't care if you're on a beautiful beach. It doesn't care how much money you have. No matter where you are, comparing yourself to others will rob you of the magic that manifests in every single moment.

The tourism industry exploits our tendency to compare our present circumstance to that of others. They're aware that we'll glance at a picture of a sunny beach and believe whole-heartedly that if we could only be there, we'd be contented.

The reality though, is more complicated. Some people are content when they're on a sunny beach, but they're probably the same ones who were content in their prior circumstance. Some people take their misery with them wherever they go and wonder why they can't escape it.

You and I have everything we need right here, right now. It's completely normal to become envious—it's in our evolutionary makeup. But by gently reminding ourselves that no one's experience is as ideal as we pretend, we free ourselves from the delusion that things would be better if only we were someplace else.

I don't enjoy travel anymore

I'm sitting in a condo I rented for a week-long personal retreat in Bend, Oregon. My partner is on her way to Mexico for a vacation with her friend, so I figured I'd take this week as an opportunity to get out of Portland for awhile and change my surroundings.

So far, I don't get it.

Bend is fine. I've heard great things about it. It's scenic. There's a bustling downtown full of fun things to do. There's a charm here that's not found anywhere else. Et cetera.

But I didn't sleep well last night. I spent an entire day packing, driving, unpacking, and grocery shopping. I left the home I'd made for myself in Portland—a carefully curated collection of systems for living—and decided it would be a good idea to leave all of that for a slightly different version of the same place.

I can see the allure of wanting to produce landmarks in your memories. Things you've done that you'll remember forever. That makes sense to me, and I'm sure I'll remember the time I spent a week in Bend more than I'll remember the relative monotony of the weeks before and after.

But I'm beginning to realize that I just don't enjoy travel like other people seem to. It's not only that I thrive in routine, even though I do. I think too it's that I thrive in the act of homesteading—in building systems for living that encourage economy and reliability. Travel is completely antithetical to that ethos. It's wasteful, inefficient, and exhausting.

Kudos to you if you enjoy traveling. I used to. I just need to make space for my changing needs and desires. Travel used to be something I loved. Now I'm not so sure.

Summer vacation

This year, the stars have aligned to give me the opportunity of a lifetime: I'm taking a summer vacation.

After five years of persistent saving, planning, building and dreaming, I'm in a position where I'm able to take the months of May through August away from client work to indulge in personal pursuits.

My plan has a few key objectives.

I want to learn to become comfortable with boredom and uncertainty. By making myself unavailable for client work for a period of a few months, I think I'll be able to sink my teeth into some sweet, sweet boredom. I'll wake up and my day will be unstructured. I'll have to define my own objectives. I'll be free to write, to read, to sit and stare out the window.

I'm excited to practice reducing my day-to-day expenses. With the luxury of full, empty days, it's unlikely I'll have the knee-jerk idea to just go out to eat instead. Not constantly serving clients, I'll be armed with the decision-making capacity to become an even more effective home economist.

I want to enjoy Oregon's lush and diverse landscapes. So often during the summers have I wanted to venture out to explore Sauvie Island or take a day trip to the coast, only to be pulled back into client work and unable to enjoy its majesty. This summer, I want to give myself permission to explore unencumbered.

And as well, I'm eager to push the big reset button on my life and business. I've engaged in flurries of writing about and promoting my business, but making it a full-time job for a few months ought to bring about some massive changes and allow me to see things more clearly than when in the day-to-day cycle of client work.

School's almost out. Time to play!

Do it slowly

In the pursuit of having what we want now, we often set ourselves up for never having it at all.

Risking your entire savings to start a company wrecklessly means you've compromised your security in the pursuit of rapid growth, instead of growing slowly while maintaining other sources of income.

Buying a Mercedes on credit (or worse, leasing it) will get you the car you want now, but your future self might not be able to afford the payments. Buying a lightly used Mercedes with cash from the person who bought theirs new on credit, only when you can afford to do so and maintain your financial independence, will mean you can drive a Mercedes forever.

Trying to deadlift 400lbs when you haven't set foot in a gym in a decade means you're likely to wind up doing irreversible damage to your body. If instead you work with a trainer to learn how to deadlift 90lbs safely, and over the course of several months, you'll eventually get the strength you desire.

Marrying the person you just met online six months ago might get you a spouse now, but you're less likely to have built a foundation of trust. You're more likely to divorce, or worse, spend your life with someone whose company you dislike.

The true reward of living is in the process—not the outcome. The gratification from having exerted effort to achieve life's rewards is far greater than the rewards themselves.

A chicken with its head cut off

On my path toward financial independence, I notice my financial awareness comes and goes in waves.

At one extreme, I'm devoted to my frugal lifestyle. I cook at home. I only go to cafes for $4 coffee when I'm meeting friends. I invite friends over for dinner. My partner and I cook. I take inventory of my things and use what I have.

But then, there's the other extreme. I call it the chicken with its head cut off extreme. I mindlessly buy $4 coffee after $4 coffee while I work, distracted by the tiresome surroundings of a crowded cafe. I go out to lunch at restaurants whose food is great, but which has worn on me as I've eaten there so many times. I buy clothes not out of necessity or comfort, but to evoke a sense of fashion. I buy gadgets to fill a void in my heart that could have just as easily been filled by a ten-minute meditation.

In the FIRE community, there's rightful enthusiasm for the position of f*ck you. But at the mindless, consumption-oriented end of the spectrum of financial acumen lies a different position: the position of f*ck it. The proverbial chicken with its head cut off.

In striving for financial independence, we tell ourselves we're on a path toward "freedom." But the very notion of freedom is meaningless if not properly defined. After all, the position of f*ck it, the position of a chicken with its head cut off—that sounds awfully free. It's doing whatever you want whenever you want to. And fundamental financial independence ideal—the idea that you'll be hyper-frugal and save today for a better tomorrow—sounds like the opposite of freedom.

So maybe "freedom" isn't the right word. Maybe what we're striving for is autonomy. The sense that we're in control of our lives, as much as we can be. That we're free to say no. That we control our time, even if that means we relinquish the convenience of meals out and the perceived prestige of fancy cars.

Would you say a chicken with its head cut off is autonomous? I don't think so.